Literature Review: Trench Warfare
By Francis Nierman
Trench warfare as a study did not become a focus point for writers until after the conclusion of the Second World War. It will be shown that in the period following the conclusion of the First World War the only sources available were autobiographies and early analytical works of major battles and advancements in the study of military strategy moving forward. After the First World War trench warfare was never seen on the scale that it was seen at during the years of 1914-1918. The literature surrounding trench warfare that holds the most influence is intended for the educated reader who has familiarity with the topic matter.
There is an abundance of sources on the topic of trench warfare, but what is the importance of trench warfare in literature if not for the diversity of the source material on which the literature depends? It should come as no surprise that so traumatized were the victors in the wake of the Great War that historians have been trying to come to terms with it ever since. if it was found that this topic is dominated by European writers. This makes sense as the British’ level of involvement, for instance, in the Great War cannot be compared to the United States’ level of involvement as the United States is geographically isolated.
The literature surrounding trench warfare can be categorized into military history. However as studies have recently shown, that specific field has become very narrow. It has come down to the simple fact that new history is becoming more difficult to find. The literature of trench warfare is one of such studies that has suffered as such. As such it shall be shown that trench warfare studies peaked in the post second world war era in world history.
The literature surrounding trench warfare has publishing dates ranging from directly following the conclusion of the war in 1918, to right before the outbreak of the second world war in 1939. Specifically the year(s) 1920 through 1930 featured an abundance of published works, from oral histories to manuals. Similarly following the conclusion of the second world war in 1945, works relating to the study of trench warfare begin to resurface. Publishing of these works continued throughout the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, but with less frequency than that of the period following the first world war. In addition to this the origin of the majority of the sources dedicated to the study of trench warfare are of European origin.
Published in 1919 With The Allies by Richard Harding Davis presents his recollections that offer a “single authoritative treatment, reasonably small in compass and in price, from which to derive strong and vivid impressions of the character of each of our Allies, of the part each is playing, of the nature of the fighting on each of the various fronts”. The writing style is that of an autobiography which categorizes this source as an oratorical historical account. As it was published one year after the conclusion of the war this source was the oldest source found. As such it does not contain a bibliography or any additional references. While the focus point of the book is not trench warfare, it instead creates a starting point for the literature of the study of trench warfare to develop.
It is not until after the second world war in which the study of trench warfare became a focus point of study for historians. While autobiographies such as With the Allies present true accounts of history these accounts do not offer any new information as the majority of new information has already been analyzed.
In John Ellis’ book Eye-Deep In Hell, it is found that the study of trench warfare is the focus point of the book. Published in 1976, this source contains; photos, maps, and charts depicting the layout as well as the design of the trenches themselves. The accuracy of the charts can be verified by observing the photographs included. This provides the reader with both strong mental and physical images to provide background and context.
All aspects of trench warfare which included the daily routines of the men who lived in them were taken into account. Ellis’ presents his information with oral histories supporting his facts. More importantly it appears that Ellis’ places an emphasis on the individual experiences which left grim memories in the minds of veterans. Ellis does this by providing a quote, whose meaning is meant to reflect the following chapter, at the beginning of every chapter. This adds the ‘humanity’ aspect of the topic into consideration. It could be argued that having an English heritage had an influence on the writing style and motivations of the author.
Another work published in 1980, Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System, author Tony Ashworth also presents trench warfare “From the perspective of combatants, trench war was the larger part of the total war experience since most of the soldiers for much of the time fought this form of war”. This statement is Ashworth’s thesis, but he elaborates his thesis further by stating; “Yet from the perspective of military and other historians, it seems that trench war is of less consequence and interest, and certainly, historical works attend less to trench war than large battles”. Ashworth’s methodology is very effective as the point that is being argued is stated outright for the reader’s benefit.
Ashworth goes into great detail when presenting his findings with the support of over seven hundred of added notes in the ‘Notes’ section of the work. Ashworth had same advantage as Ellis in terms of the timing of their published works. Ashworth recognized the changes in what he refers to as the “battle behavior of soldiers”, meaning that the nature of killing which had become somewhat of a second nature to soldiers. This nature being something of an warrior instinct that could be considered a rite of passage for any soldier. Ashworth is an English author, which furthers the argument that a majority of the sources that exist on the study of trench warfare are English in publication origin.
Trench warfare is not just the study of the static war of attrition that plagued the western front during the war, in Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918, author Bill Rawling presents his study of trench warfare by arguing the importance of well trained troops made the difference in the trenches as opposed to technological advancements which were made effective by such advanced training. Stating in his introduction; “Technology was not enough; the troops themselves had to be involved in the tactical change”. Meaning that no one weapon could replace the effectiveness of one well trained, equipped, and motivated soldier. This source was very useful as it clarified one author’s viewpoint as to how the individual soldier affected the war in the trenches, by placing the focus of the book on the soldiers experiences. Rawling’s published work is also a study of Canadian battle tactics, furthering the point that the majority of the sources dedicated to the study of trench warfare are not of American origin.
In Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, by Stephen Bull, a detailed analysis of trench warfare is given to the reader, much like Eye-Deep In Hell. Published by ‘Osprey Publishing’ in 2010, this source uses seventy-eight sources to provide additional knowledge on the topic, should the reader so chose to do some researching. Bull discusses all aspects of trench warfare in his book, for instance his reliance on period ‘manuals’ in addition to the amount of firsthand accounts would lead the reader to the conclusion that Bull wants to present as accurate of an analysis as he can. It is interesting that once Ashworth’s thesis was identified, more publications on the study of trench warfare that indirectly are in line with his thesis were discovered.
In the ‘Select Bibliography’ section of Trench, half of the author’s sources are dated before the outbreak of the second world war. The remaining ten ‘memoirs and first hand accounts’ are all dated on or after the year 1980. There are no sources from the period(s) during the second world war, and the Korean war. However, there are a few sources during the period of involvement in Vietnam. In summation, there seems to be a gap between when sources were published and when different conflicts have taken place. Following the second world war, historians and military tacticians were focused on learning the lessons from the most recent conflict as whatever occured next was a direct response to the evolution of
warfare as a whole. It can also be noted that Bull drew on the the influences of other authored published works on trench warfare, in Bull’s bibliography he has several notations from Gary Sheffield, for instance. In his bibliography Bull cites information given by Sheffield from two of his (Sheffield’s) previous published works.
The most accurate sources in this case are oral history records. Oral history is both the oldest and most modern form of recording history. It is no surprise that the majority of oral histories cited in Trench are dated right after the conclusion of the Great War in 1918. In the ‘General’ section of the bibliography, twenty six of the cited sources are dated post 1980. These sources are mainly overviews of certain portions of the war as opposed to first hand accounts. This is most likely due to the fact that the veterans of world war I have almost faded away into history themselves or have already had their story told. It is this difficulty that historians encounter when they try to discover new information about a topic.
In his conclusion Bull states that “On the basis of many accounts we might be forgiven for thinking that the trench war of 1914 through 1918 was the war in which nothing of significance, bar death and destruction, ever happened”. Bull refutes this in his book by explaining that trench warfare was also something that brought about a new age of advancements in the field(s) of technology fueled by industry which in turn caused dramatic changes on the battlefield. Bull’s conclusion shares some similarities with Rawling’s thesis, but disputes the point that the soldier who held more influence over the battlefield as opposed to new and advanced technologies. It is also worth noting that Stephen Bull is a writer of European descent.
When comparing Bulls work to Gary Sheffield’s book, A Short History of The First World War there are some key differences in the manner in which trench warfare is analyzed. Whereas Bull’s work is entirely dedicated to the study of trench warfare, Sheffield’s work provides his readers with an overview of the entire Great War itself with limited information on specifically trench warfare. This source can be considered the weakest source discovered as it did not lead to the discovery of any new information about trench warfare itself other than it being classified as a “war of attrition”.
The information that Sheffield does provide on the topic is in the form of discussing the war in the trenches in an chronological fashion. This is one of the key differences between these twenty-first century sources, it is the approach that each author takes towards the study of trench warfare, which in turn re-invigorates the topic in literature.
After a thorough investigation of materials with information relating to trench warfare, it has been discovered that there was no single reference source dedicated to the study of trench warfare. In History of the Modern World: World War I and its consequences, trench warfare is discussed, however not to the level of detail as the other sources previously listed. There are no first hand accounts referenced nor are there any footnotes, as this source could be considered an encyclopedic entry. In the ‘Further Resources’ section of this reference source, only eight sources are used for the section dedicated to the First World War.
All of the sources that have been found that encourage the study of trench warfare to develop were published following the Second World War. This period has been found to be the period in which the literature of trench warfare was at its height as historians and military tacticians were looking at the following major world conflicts. While they are considered secondary sources, they offer more detail and information as opposed to oral histories and other primary sources on account of having a compilation of sources that check the authenticity of one another.
Most of the information regarding the study of trench warfare has already been discovered and published. Leading to the conclusion that the study of the topic is heading into extinction. It is inevitable as it is near impossible to recount and analyze every angle or aspect of history. Trench warfare as a focus point is a very interesting one, to the trained reader. To the average reader a detailed study of earthen entrenchments and how tactics of warfare were developed around this simple concept. To this end, a true an accurate study of trench warfare that has had widespread reach has not been published since before the turn of the 21st century.
Literature Review Bibliography
· Ashworth, Tony. Trench Warfare, 1914-1918 : The Live and Let Live System. London: Macmillan, 1980.
· Bull, Stephen, and Imperial War Museum. Trench : A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front. Oxford ; Long Island City, NY: Osprey Pub., 2010.
· Cooke, Timothy. History of the Modern World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1999.
· Davis, Richard Harding. With the Allies. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1919.
· Ellis, John. Eye-deep in Hell : Trench Warfare in World War I. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
· Rawling, Bill. Surviving Trench Warfare : Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
· Sheffield, Gary. A Short History of the First World War. 2014.